Tag Archives: Humility

Gift vs. Given

I am now officially done the seminary year.  This past week I helped out at a Bible Camp in our diocese, and I have also done something I have not done for a while: leisurely reading.  I love reading for school, etc., but I have already noticed a marked difference between reading for a paper and reading simply for its own sake.  When it comes to leisurely reading, nothing compares.

One of the books I have decided to take up is by Kenneth Schmitz titled “The Recovery of Wonder“.  It is, essentially, a book about things and how we view things.  If this post is obtuse, please grant me this slight indulgence as I very much find myself in line with Schmitz’s thought and find his style to be rather attractive.  When I find a style attractive, I have a tendency to imitate it, hence why this post may be obtuse.  If you are not a great fan of obtuse things, then, by all means, you are not obliged to continue on.

As I stated, the book is about things or, in Latin, res.  The fundamental question that underlies the investigation of the book is the reality of things: are they complex wholes or are they simple parts mashed together?  I have yet to finish the book, but am already able to see where his argument is going by virtue of the title.  Wonder – and it is for this reason I purchased the book – has been a concept that has been rather appealing to me for some time now.  To be in awe of things is the sign of contemplation and to see that things point beyond themselves to an Other who constitutes the totality of finite existence.  The thing points to the transcendence of this Other because this Other is also immanent to the thing by virtue of its upholding this unnecessary thing in existence.    In effect, this is the traditional, pre-modern metaphysical worldview.  A thing, whatever it may be, is ultimately a mystery – that is it is something that has an infinite depth that can never be grasped in its totality; there is always a ‘more’ to it.  The word that constitutes such a worldview is the word ‘gift’ and it is the result of the reality of the Hebrew and Christian revelation of the God who creates ex nihilo.  Writing a paper this year on Genesis 1:1-3 helped me realize just how profound and revolutionary the opening words of Genesis are.  The way, in fact, to read the entire creation account of Genesis – the hermeneutical key by which one ought to read the entire creation story – is through the lens of the concept of gift.  All that is is a gift from God, it is not necessary.  God creates out of His gracious love and each thing that is in existence is the result of His loving gaze upon us.  When in the realm of metaphysics, one would call this an ontology of gift: every thing has within its being the stamp of being gifted into existence.  No thing that is – save for God – need exist.  It is pure gratuity.  Thus we hang thinly between the abyss of annihilation and the totality of being.  Our very being is constituted of nothingness and everything at the same time.  This is what is known as contingency, and contingency – ontologically and not simply in a causal series – is expressed most fundamentally in the concept of gift.

Gift, donum, is contrasted with the modern approach of seeing reality as given, as a datum.  When things are seen as a gift, they are seen as their whole, though constituted in a complex manner.  Yet the whole, in the realm of gift, is greater than the sum of its parts.  With the modern concept of things being simply a given, a datum to be investigated, a phenomenon to be observed, we run the risk of seeing distinctions within a thing as also a separation between the aspects of a thing.  This is what is known as scientism: the constant desire to pursue the simple aspects of a thing to the neglect of the whole.  It is also an expression of voluntarism, of power over nature, of the throwing oneself over and above another object.  It is no coincidence that our move towards a technological society is based within a cultural mentality in which power is the ultimate arbiter of life.  Seeing the world as a given – that is, it is simply there, without any concern for its ultimate ontological origin – means to seeing it as something to dissect and to have power over.  Things become the objects of our rational need to dissect, separate, and own, instead of the more primary human need of the intellect, which expresses itself in contemplation, allowing all of reality to be itself to the subject and to receive it with openness as the totality that it really is.

I am not downplaying the importance of the givenness of reality.  There is a very true sense that there is a givenness to the natural realm.  It is simply there in front of us in order to investigate.  Often, when two worldviews are pitted against each other, we have a tendency to want one to win out over the other.  But this need not be the case.  There is value and truth and, dare I say, even beauty to the modern approach to the world.  However, if we are to have true success with it, if it is going to truly correspond to our humanity, then it must be in conversation with the contemplative nature of life.  Contemplation – intellect – and rationality need not be opposed to each other.

Yet, I must emphasize one thing and it is with this that I will end this post.  The point of Schmitz’s book is to rediscover the idea of wonder, to be amazed by that which is around us, from the simplest to the most complex things.  In short, we must rediscover the contemplative nature of life.  Both Schmitz and Pope Benedict point to the ecological movement as an expression of the sense that technological domination over the natural realm must have its limits, that we must let things be at times, that we must allow the world to be itself for us and for us to receive it in contemplative and receptive humility.  What is wrong in the movement is that it emphasizes the natural realm to the neglect of the human and even, at times, to the detriment of the human.  Yet there is also that essential kernal of truth: the natural realm is beautiful and worthy to be upheld and protected against the domination of the human will’s desire to cease control of all that is. To be human is to be finite, to be limited, and the idea that the natural realm is only datum, only given, will constantly go against the truly human when it acts to the neglect of the contemplative attitude towards the world.

It may seem like an impossible task, for the ideology of scientism is very much ingrained within our cultural mentality.  It will take Herculean efforts in order to overcome such a cultural attitude.  Yet we must begin it.  To rediscover wonder in the world is to rediscover the essential aesthetic quality of the world.  Beauty, I am convinced in this day in age, will indeed save the world.  We can reclaim the rightful place of the giftedness of the world alongside the scientific.  They need not be opposed.  For when this is done, then the investigation into the world will no longer be for dominance over it, but rather as an immersion of our selves into the reality of things for their own sake.  Then, and only then, will the world be able to begin to be beautiful once again.

in Christ



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For one of my classes, we were asked to read selections from “Glory of the Lord Volume 1: Seeing the Form” by the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.  Being a major fan of the great theology of this man, I quickly embraced the opportunity to not only read what was asked, but to re-read some areas I read in the past and wanted to read again.  I had taken the concept of humility and receptivity to be at the center of his theology (summarized under the concept of obedience), and this was affirmed in my class on Thursday.

Why do I bring up this great theologian?  Because what he promotes is a fundamental humility and receptivity towards the whole created order. For Balthasar, to be humble, to be open, to receive is the fundamental condition of humanity.  Only sin has distorted this into a mastering-over which expresses itself in technique and technology – signs that man depends on his own power but not on the freely given grace of God.

If this is man’s fundamental condition, then it must be how he approaches both reality and God.  For, by approaching reality and letting reality be-itself-to-you, you are able to sing the glories of what there is.  By letting reality “be itself” and to accept it as it is to you, you have the openness necessary to grow in knowledge.

For Balthasar, then, skepticism has no place in the search for knowledge, nor can one have a “certainty” that they know all they need to know.  Knowledge grows from letting all that is be itself to you, and, thereby, passing judgment upon reality.  It involves questioning, but not in the realm of “is this true” but rather “what is the mystery contained here?”.  Knowledge, fundamentally, must be based in complete and total awe towards all that is.

By doing so, we not only have the openness to reality, but to the God Who involves Himself in this reality in the Incarnation.  In short: if we want to know the Person of Jesus, we need to have an openness and obedience towards all that is in the world and, by doing so, we have a searching heart and can have the openness to encountering the Gospel.  Openness, obedience, receptivity, humility: these are man’s fundamental dispositions that help him grow to know all that is in all its mystery, splendor, and grandeur.

Where do we get a concrete example of this?  Who else but the Mother of Jesus who was so open to the Word that He took flesh in her womb?  Who else but she who said with conviction and boldness: fiat!  Who else but she who pondered all that God was doing in her heart?  Who else but she who trusted wholeheartedly in the God Who was the center of her life?

In our day to day lives, furthermore, this Marian character is revealed to us in women.  Those who think the Church is against women, or hates women, has never encountered the true beauty the Church sees in women.  Women, really, reveal to us what it means to be human!  That receptivity, that openness, is the true humility everyone – male and female – is called to.  Women carry that receptivity ever more clearly as stamped in their bodies and reveal to us the glory of humanity: to have an openness and receptivity to the God Who loves us and also wants to take flesh in our humanity so that He may bring His saving love to others.

I have realized, myself, that this is not only true in my life, but it has to become an ever increasing character of my life.  I know that with my conversion – and I know not why – there was a moment of openness and it was in that openness that God broke into my life.  I know, too, that I need to continue to re-live and re-discover that fundamental openness I had 8 years ago now.

What, though, if we are not open?  We cannot judge the person who is not open.  However, we must pray, fast, and do penance for those who are not open.  Not only for the sake of them hearing the gentle love of Christ for their lives, but also so that they can, in a more fundamental way, see the beauty of reality!  Openness is so fundamental: not cold skepticism.  To put ourselves above all that is is contrary to our dignity as human persons and puts us at war with the world we live in.  Until we can realize that we are not greater than the totality of things, until we acknowledge that we are of dust and it is to dust that we shall return, we will continue to be at war with our own humanity.  Let us look to Mary, let us look to women and see the true attitude towards reality: humble acceptance of all there is in its splendor.  Let us have wonder and awe at all there is!

in Christ


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Benedict’s Regensburg Lecture

Hi Folks.  Below is a short paper I had to write for world religions on Benedict’s Regensburg lecture and how it impacts inter-religious dialogue.  It is short enough for a blog post so I thought I would share it with you.


As Fr. Neuhaus once said: despite the incessant claims otherwise, Benedict’s Regensburg lecture is not chiefly about Islam: it is about the attempt to de-hellenize Christianity and reduce the horizon of reason to positivism.[1]

If Fr. Neuhaus is correct in his assessment, then we must ask ourselves the question: what has Regensburg to do with religion?  In fact, Benedict’s lecture has a lot to do with dialogue between religions as expressed in the concern for the humanum and the principle of humilitas.

The concern for the humanum is expressed throughout the lecture as a concern for the fundamental experiences of the human person: that which is authentically lived in all humanity.  In one of his many writings as Cardinal, Ratzinger writes that “Poverty is the truly divine manifestation of truth: thus it can demand obedience without involving alienation.”[2]  In other words, God’s self revelation is a manifestation of Who He is in the limitedness of His creation.  God is still God despite entering into an encounter with the world.  Ratzinger’s point here, however, is more anthropocentric: man is still man in his encounter with God.  God cannot alienate us from ourselves in His demand for us to follow Him.  Such a principle is manifested throughout the lecture, as highlighted in two instances.  First is his prefatory note about Islam and voluntarism: if God can even enforce the practice of idolatry, how is this affirming of what is truly human?  Secondly, in his analysis of the encounter between Hellenism and biblical faith, stating that the attempted de-Hellenization of Christianity is a project: it is an attempt to remove the rational from the very structures of faith.  In short,faith demands reasonableness and is, in fact, a reasonable mode of encountering reality.  He will, in fact, say that positivism is a reduction of reason.  He argues elsewhere that the ‘axiological structure of faith’ – the acceptance of reality as it is – is part of being human and that we cannot be human without this element of faith.  We must accept axioms in order to function as human beings, making faith a reasonable element of lived human existence. [3]

Positivism’s demand to know merely the observable in order to make valid judgments is in fact an irrational posture.  The issue with Islam is that it throws reason out the window in favour of voluntarism while the issue with rationalism is that it presumes faith to be irrational.  Both positions, Benedict states, are contrary to the core experience of being human.  Positivism and voluntarism, for Benedict, prove to be ahistorical – hence his emphasis on the history of man and the formulation of ideas – and therefore contrary to the core structure of man who is placed in history.

This leads the principle of humilitas.  The common theme of the entire lecture is to re-invigorate the intellectual openness of the University.  This is the reason behind both his experience of universitas at the beginning of the lecture and, at the end of the lecture, to reaffirm the true function of a university as being based in the logos in the broad sense of the term.  In fact, as a sidenote, the address is really about the true form of universitas, and we can take the universitas model as a means for engaging in all sorts of dialogue.  The consistent element of the lecture, however, is the emphasis on humilitas in its biblical sense: to do actions that set one in a proper relation with God or, more generally, with truth.[4]  In its more general sense, humility is an openness and acceptance of the other who is present to us.  Humilitas, then, is to be expected on both sides of the dialogue.  For Benedict, this means that those who are not Christian – be they Muslim, Jew, atheist, or pagan – must accept Christianity on its own terms as a faith embedded in Hellenistic reason.  Any attempt to impose the other side’s interpretation of Christianity onto Christianity is insufficient for the beginning of a dialogue.  It appears that the process of de-hellenization, then, is a process of removing what is essentially Christian from Christianity.  Christianity practices humilitas with other worldviews (even in a critical manner!), and so ought not other worldviews offer the same consideration to Christianity?

What, then, do these two positions have to do with inter-religious dialogue?  We must first ask the question that Marcelo Pera asks: is dialogue even possible between competing absolute truth claims in monotheistic religions?[5]  Pera thinks it is not,[6] but Ratzinger thinks it is possible if we refocus the terms of what dialogue means.  Dialogue, for Ratzinger, is not an attempt to come to a mutually agreed position.  Rather, dialogue is about accepting the truths that are in accord with our faith from other religions, truths which can even challenge Christianity to rediscover lost elements of truth in its tradition.  Through this discussion, one hopes that truth is reached and thus it is inherently missionary for the Christian.[7]   In these views put forward by Ratzinger, we can see how two principle methods behind the Regensburg Lecture are influential in the practice of inter-religious dialogue.  In regards to the concern for the humanum, we realize that this dialogue must always have the humanum at the center of the discussion: the lived total experience of humanity at its fundamental level in history.  Because of this, constructive criticism can be made towards other religions – and Christianity too! – for not taking the humanum seriously enough.  God, for the Christian, cannot contradict the fundamental reality of humanity.  It is criteria that must be applied to truth, for truth ought not to conflict with what is most basically and fundamentally human.  Humilitas is the extension of the concern for the humanum.  It means allowing each religion and worldview to be itself to the other.  Only when one is truly itself to the other can dialogue truly begin so that we can come to a deeper understanding of each other and the truth, which is at the core of the experience of universitas.  The concern for the humanum and the principle of humilitas, ought to open serious questions and comments between the worldviews.  If there is anything that is proof that these two principles work, it is the response of the thirty-eight and one hundred and thirty-eight Islamic scholars, intellectuals, and clerics who responded to the Pope that Islam’s view of God can be one based in the logos.  This is the true effect of dialogue, but it is only possible when the humanum is placed at the centre and is sought after in humilitas.

[1] Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, First Things – November 2006, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/03/the-regensburg-moment-2.  Accessed February 10th, 2012

[2] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Many Religions – One Convenant: Israel, the Church and the World, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), p. 109.

[3]Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006) pp. 80 – 81.

[4] Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrew W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), p. 11.

[5] Marcello Pera, Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Society (New York: Encounter Books, 2008),  p. 133.

[6] Ibid, p. 135.

[7] Ratzinger, Many Religions – One Covenant, pp. 109-113.


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